This Article explores the intersection of Fourth Amendment standards of proof and the “clearly established” prong of qualified immunity. It illustrates how the juxtaposition of the Court’s insistence on a low level of specificity for the development of suspicion and a high degree of specificity for the imposition of liability makes it exceedingly difficult to hold officers accountable for violating constitutional rights. And it offers both a path for future research into the development of suspicion and suggestions for methods that police agencies can use to improve the development and articulation of suspicion. Ultimately, it contends that policing in the 21st century must take seriously the idea that the Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling, and it calls for the development of more rigorous standards for police actions.
The defense of qualified immunity for claims seeking monetary damages for constitutionally inadequate medical care for people who are incarcerated is misguided. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, medical illness is the leading cause of death of people incarcerated in prisons and jails across the United States. Qualified immunity in these cases limits accountability for carceral actors, thereby limiting incentives for improvements in the delivery of constitutionally adequate medical care. The qualified immunity defense also compounds other existing barriers, such as higher subjective intent standards and the Prison Litigation Reform Act, to asserting legal accountability of prison and jail administrators. In addition, the defense is not appropriate because medical care decisions by carceral actors are fundamentally different than traditional qualified immunity cases. Traditional qualified immunity cases usually involve discretionary decisions that are one-off, emergency, binary choices made by a single actor or unit of actors. In contrast, medical decisions in carceral settings are often serial, ongoing, and usually involve multiple decision makers, sometimes acting beyond their area of expertise. These significant differences between medical decisions in carceral settings and traditional qualified immunity decisions illustrate the practical difficulties for incarcerated plaintiffs and their families in holding prisons accountable for violating the U.S. Constitution. Recent developments refining the doctrine may lessen the negative impact of the defense on these civil rights claims, but they also do not address the core disconnect between the rationales justifying qualified immunity and its application in cases of severe injury or death from inadequate carceral healthcare.